Monday, October 31, 2011

Thinking Out Loud

by Kathleen Bradean

I'm a member of FetLife although I rarely post there and haven't kept up with most of the community. A few days ago though, a new writer wondered if he could get away with writing a science fiction novel that included explicit (I think the words he used were super kinky)sex scenes. Since that dovetailed nicely with this topic, which I picked a few weeks ago, I thought I'd share parts of my posts on FetLife. You won't see the rest of the discussion, because posting other people's replies without their permission is just wrong, but I think you'll get the gist of where the topic wandered.

My first reply was basically: write what you want to. There are no rules.

There are many literary novels that have erotic elements that are essential to the story: Call Me By Your Name, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, almost every novel by Georges Bataille, The Vampire Lestat and Interview with the Vampire (which contain no sex, but are highly erotic), even Killing Johnny Fry. There are so many.

This led to a discussion about what makes a book erotica. So I said:

If a story is marketed as erotica, readers expect the story to be driven by the character's sexual needs. Okay, but isn't Crash by J.G. Ballard and The Fermata & Vox by Nicholson Baker precisely about that? And yet, those books are marketed as literary novels. Part of why that happened is the way the writer approached sex, part of it is how they presented the novel to their agent and then the publisher, part of it is how the writer saw himself, but it may also be because reader expectation is that a novel marketed as erotica will have sex in every chapter. So if [writer's name redacted] is writing a novel that won't have sex in every chapter but has sexual content, I'm urging him to think of his work as a literary novel with erotic elements because that will free him from the self-imposed burden of including sex scenes that feel gratuitous.

I should have included "or a science fiction novel" to the comment about urging him to think of his work as something other than erotica. Not that I think there's anything wrong with erotica - far from it - but if that definition bogs down a writer before he can even start his novel, it's time to chuck it aside. I've often urged erotica writers to look beyond the erotica genre and realize that our work often fits on many shelves in the bookstore. Proudly wear the erotica badge, but if your story is also a mystery or science fiction or romance, don't assume that your erotic content is unwelcome, because many books in mainstream genres are just as erotic as yours.

Then I went on to say (at length, forgive me)

Usually, the term literary erotica is used to describe erotica written in the genre style of literary fiction, as opposed to erotic romance, which is written in the genre style of romance. I don't see much debate between literary fiction with sexual content versus erotica...

Is the difference between literary fiction that uses sex to explore the characters and erotica simply a matter of marketing? Is there some essential difference? I can point to many books that don't strike me as literary fiction because the story seems to be an excuse to string together a bunch of sex scenes... Is that porn then? As I said, that's a matter of opinion, and my current opinion on that question is that I don't really care. On the other hand, there are books I can point to that are marketed as erotica that read like literary fiction. (I wish that I could recall one title off the top of my head. Any work by Remittance Girl would fit that category.) There are literary works that I consider to be erotica, but that doesn't make them "not-literary." (The Story of O comes to mind. I think most unbiased readers would agree that the main character's journey reflects the arc of most literary novels and the writing style fits the genre of literary fiction, but there's no dismissing the sexual content as a mere element of the story. It drives the entire plot.) So I guess my answer is "I know it when I see it" when I try to parse out a difference between erotica and literary fiction where sex is integral to the plot. But that's a matter of personal opinion, and your, and every other reader's, opinion will be different from mine - and all those opinions are just as legitimate as mine.

An interesting reply later on mused about why there isn't much discussion about erotica versus literary work. She later clarified that it's almost impossible to start a discussion about the many different genre styles: romance, literary, mystery, paranormal, contemporary within erotica with readers and writers and wondered why that was. That, I didn't have a good answer for, other than to guess that the idea of discussing erotica on literary terms rather than if it got the reader off or not is a fairly new concept for readers. Maybe we'll see more discussions in the future. I hope so.


  1. Interesting discussion on FetLife. Anais Nin and Henry Miller inspired a certain amount of literary discussion, don't you think? I wonder what it would take to get the discussion going again? The notoriety of a certain author?

  2. I think there's a flavor of "literature is higher," somehow, if you know what I mean--more intellectual, more worthy, harder to write, and not merely a different genre. That makes it harder for one to claim the label for one's self, it seems to me. It's like someone else has to bestow it upon you; whereas anyone can say they write erotica.

    Now I wonder what (if anything) Miller and Nin said at the time about their own writing.

  3. Kristina - Maybe. Or a best-seller with jsut the right cross-over audience and an enraged NYT review.

  4. Shar - allow me to introduce you to many bad writers who claim the literary title.

    Although you may have something there with the reticence writers without MFAs feel toward calling their work literary. I always want to shout "Come on folks, literary fiction just a genre like westerns or mysteries. Don't be intimidated!"

  5. "It's almost impossible to start a discussion about the many different genre styles: romance, literary, mystery, paranormal, contemporary within erotica with readers and writers and wondered why that was."

    In my experience, WRITERS will discuss this till the cows come home! (Just look at us here at the Grip!) READERS don't really care, imho, as long as they're entertained, challenged or amazed by what they are reading. Genres are primarily a marketing device, not something fundamental.

    I'd like to say that what makes something "literary" is a mix of originality in conception and expressive skill in execution - but I'm not really sure that captures the distinction.

    Sometimes I just want to throw up my hands and say - who cares? I'd like my writing to get more respect, and I do think my work (especially my short stories) tend more into that vague "literary" area - but ultimately I'm going to write what I write, regardless of what it's called.

  6. Lisabet - While the "who cares" point is indeed seductive, I try to encourage as much discussion about erotica as I can because the rest of the literary world is sorely in need of enlightenment. (and the sniping between erotica genres isn't a pretty picture either)

  7. LOL Kathleen, I'll pass, thank you! (on being introduced to bad writers who call themselves "literary"). Of course, they'll probably track me down on their own...

  8. Hi Kathleen

    I think for me the key point what be what you said about whether sex drives the plot. To me that defines erotica, a story where sex isn;t just painted on but rather without ut the story falls apart.



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